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Political Dissent in Democratic Athens

Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule

Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 440
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    Political Dissent in Democratic Athens
    Book Description:

    How and why did the Western tradition of political theorizing arise in Athens during the late fifth and fourth centuries B.C.? By interweaving intellectual history with political philosophy and literary analysis, Josiah Ober argues that the tradition originated in a high-stakes debate about democracy. Since elite Greek intellectuals tended to assume that ordinary men were incapable of ruling themselves, the longevity and resilience of Athenian popular rule presented a problem: how to explain the apparent success of a regime "irrationally" based on the inherent wisdom and practical efficacy of decisions made by non-elite citizens? The problem became acute after two oligarchiccoups d' tatin the late fifth century B.C. The generosity and statesmanship that democrats showed after regaining political power contrasted starkly with the oligarchs' violence and corruption. Since it was no longer self-evident that "better men" meant "better government," critics of democracy sought new arguments to explain the relationship among politics, ethics, and morality.

    Ober offers fresh readings of the political works of Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, by placing them in the context of a competitive community of dissident writers. These thinkers struggled against both democratic ideology and intellectual rivals to articulate the best and most influential criticism of popular rule. The competitive Athenian environment stimulated a century of brilliant literary and conceptual innovation. Through Ober's re-creation of an ancient intellectual milieu, early Western political thought emerges not just as a "footnote to Plato," but as a dissident commentary on the first Western democracy.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2271-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION Why Dissent? Why Athens?
    (pp. 3-13)

    The Western tradition of political and ethical thought crystallized in the Greek city-state of Athens in the late fifth and fourth centuries B.C. But why just there and then? And why have ancient Greek discussions of politics—of power and justice, individual and community, deliberation and enactment, class conflict and public interest, eros and education—seemed so compelling to so many readers ever since? In seeking new answers to these questions, I have willfully ignored standard academic distinctions between the fields of history, philosophy, and literature. This book is intended as a contribution to intellectual history, but it depends on...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Problem of Dissent: Criticism as Contest
    (pp. 14-51)

    With these lines an anonymous Greek author, writing sometime in the latter half of the fifth century B.C., introduces a short, polemical tract calledThe Political Regime of the Athenians(Athēnaiōn politeia). The tract was already erroneously attributed to the well-known Athenian author, Xenophon, in the first century B.C. (Diogenes Laertius 2.57). Since the nineteenth century of our era, its author has been nicknamed the “Old Oligarch” after the tendentious political tone of the essay. The only real clue to Ps.-Xenophon’s identity is his distinctively Attic (i.e., Athenian) dialect. Despite the distance he establishes between himself and the Athenian citizen-masses...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Public Speech and Brute Fact: Thucydides
    (pp. 52-121)

    The author of the work we now call “The History of the Peloponnesian War” introduces his text with the statement that Thucydides the Athenian began working on his account of the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians right at the beginning of the war (431 B.C.) because at the time he expected (elpisas) that it would be great and most worthy of recording—the two main opponents (Athens and Sparta) being at the height of their strength and preparation—and because he saw (kai . . . horōn) that the rest of the Greek world was either allied to...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Essence and Enactment: Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae
    (pp. 122-155)

    Aristophanes’ comedyEcclesiazusae(Assemblywomen) was produced in the late 390s B.C.a dozen years after the end of the Peloponnesian War, the oligarchy of the Thirty, and the restoration of democracy.¹ Like all classical Athenian dramas, it was written for production at a major civic festival (the City Dionysia or the Lenaea). As far as the playwright knew (at least at the time of writing), the play would be presented a single time: in the Athenian Theater of Dionysus as one event among many (including—in the case of the City Dionysia—tragedies, comedies, satyr plays, dithyrambic choruses) in an...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Justice, Knowledge, Power: Plato Apology, Crito, Gorgias, Republic
    (pp. 156-247)

    In contrast to our near-total ignorance about the lives of Ps.-Xenophon, Thucydides, and Aristophanes, there is a relatively extensive and reliable ancient tradition about the circumstances of Plato’s life. Various details of the tradition may be wrong, but we can say for certain that Plato was born into an aristocratic Athenian family in 428/7 B.C. and that among his relatives were notorious oligarchic activists (Charmides and Critias of the Thirty). Plato was an avid admirer of Socrates and traveled to Sicily, where he attempted to establish a just political regime. He founded an influential school of philosophy at the gymnasium...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Eloquence, Leadership, Memory: Isocrates Antidosis and Areopagiticus
    (pp. 248-289)

    In turning from Plato to his fellow citizen and close contemporary Isocrates (436–338 B.C.), we move generically from metaphysical dialogue to epideictic rhetoric. Intellectually we turn from the ambitions of an “epic theory” that attempts to remake the world, to a more quotidian criticism that hopes (or claims to hope) for limited amelioration within an existing political system regarded as revisable and worth revising. Isocrates was, according to his own self-description, deprived by his lack of nerve and weak voice of the chance to become a genuinerhētōr(5.81, 12.10); instead of addressing the Athenian demos, Isocrates taught rhetoric...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Political Animals, Actual Citizens, and the Best Possible Polis: Aristotle Politics
    (pp. 290-351)

    The author of thePoliticswas not a citizen.¹ A native of Stagira, a northern Greek town on the Chalcidian peninsula probably destroyed by Philip of Macedon in 348 B.C., Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) arrived at Plato’s Academy in 367. He lived in Athens for twenty years as a metic, and then spent a dozen years as the guest of hellenized dynasts on the western coast of Anatolia and Macedon. Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 to found his own school at the extramural gymnasium known as the Lyceum. He fled to Euboea in 323, lest “the Athenians commit a...

  12. CHAPTER 7 The Dialectics of Dissent: Criticism as Dialogue
    (pp. 352-374)

    This measured judgment on the reestablishment of Athenian democracy in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War was written between 332 and 322 B.C. by a member of Aristotle’s Lyceum—possibly by Aristotle himself, but I tend to suppose by an anonymous student. Ps.-Aristotle’s text, entitled, like Ps.-Xenophon’s of a century prior,Athēnaiōn politeia, was one of the many “polis constitutions” collected at the L yceum, but the only one of them to survive mostly intact. Ps.-Aristotle’s ideal reader may best be imagined as a fellow Aristotelian, familiar with and sympathetic to the arguments developed in thePolitics(whether or not...

    (pp. 375-402)
    (pp. 403-407)
    (pp. 409-418)